By Walter Rutledge
Harlem Jazz Shrine is a long overdue uptown tribute to jazz music. The event took place over seven days, May 9th- 15th offering thirty-five events at eight venues throughout the village of Harlem.
Venues for the event included: the Alhambra Ballroom, Harlem Stage Gatehouse, Minton’s Playhouse, Lenox Lounge, Showman’s Jazz Club, Apollo Music Café, Nectar Wine Bar and the main stage at the world-famous Apollo Theater.
The festival was designed to offer the public diverse jazz experiences ranging from big bands to small combos, jam sessions to swing parties; the events were presented in an array of venues to suit everyone’s individual taste, from large proscenium theaters to intimate clubs. The admission price to all of the events was only ten dollars making this an affordable cultural buffet. One of the highlights was Wycliffe Gordon’s “Jazz A La Carte” Friday May 13 and 14 at the Apollo Theater.
The evening was a nostalgic look at Jazz, and provided a historical glimpse into the heyday of Harlem and the Apollo Theater. The variety show format reminisced the shows and performers who graced the Apollo stage over fifty years ago. This was the Apollo of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Callaway and Count Basie if only those walls could talk.
As much as the evening was about remembering the past it was also a celebration of the future of jazz. The Temple University Jazz Band, directed by Professor of Jazz Studies Terrell Stafford, were young musician perfecting their craft. Saxophonist Grace Kelly and Trombonist Corey Wilcox were outstanding, while seventeen-year-old Canadian born vocalist Nikki Yanofsky wowed the audience. The ethnic diversity of the performers confirmed that jazz is universal and is celebrated worldwide.
Director/Choreographer Kenneth L. Robeson has created a fast paced, lively evening. The Jazz A La Carte Dancers were a perfect blend of past and present; they performed in a charismatic, confident style synonymous with the Apollo of yester-year. Host Robbie Todd won over the audience. His portrayal of the legendary variety artists including Apollo mainstay Pigmeat Markham, was not only entertaining but was also informative, and especially important for the youth in attendance.
The undisputed shining star of the evening was the one and only Savion Glover. Glover does not just tap he embodies the rhythms and movement. It goes beyond dance it is almost a sacred experience, as if ordained by a higher power. Performing on a raised platform with floor microphones Glover mesmerized the audience, who responded in true Apollo fashion with outbursts of vocal praise/ encouragement, and spontaneous applause.
Jazz is one of the great American art forms. It is the descendant of slave songs and spirituals, of ragtime, and the blues. It was born in sharecropper’s fields and grew up in the speakeasy and brothels of New Orleans. To be free of Jim Crow laws and second-class expectations Jazz artists migrated north.
The end of World War I sparked the second northern migration of American of African decent. Leaving the rural and repressive south Blacks moved north to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and many settling in the Mecca of Negro culture the village of Harlem. One bonus of the migration to Harlem was the influx of ideas, talent, pride and enthusiasm. Coupled with a newfound freedom and a public eager ready to embrace Negro culture, the 1920’s and 30’s became one of the most prolific periods in African-American history. This period became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1934 the Apollo Theater opened with “a colored review” entitled “Jazz a la Carte”, featuring Ralph Cooper Sr., Benny Carter and his orchestra, and “16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers”, with all proceeds donated to the Harlem Children’s Fresh Air Fund. The motivation for featuring Negro talent and entertainment was not only because the neighborhood had become Negro over a long period of gradual migration (before 1904 Harlem was a predominately Irish neighborhood), but also because colored entertainers were cheaper to hire; and for many years, Apollo was the only theater in New York City to hire black people.
It is fitting that Harlem Jazz Shrine include in its inaugural season the production Wycliffe Gordon’s “Jazz A La Carte” at the Apollo. It serves as the perfect homage to the inaugural season of the Apollo and the greatest that would define the Apollo and Harlem. We look forward to Harlem Jazz Shrine becoming an annual event celebrating both Jazz and Harlem.
Photo credits: 1) Wycliffe Gordon 2) Nikki Yanofsky 3) Gordon and Dancers 4) Gordon and Savion Glover 5) Apollo Theater.